The new evil in California: Single-family homes

California is, without a doubt, legally part of the United States of America. But for anyone not living there and peering in from the outside, it can frequently look like an alien civilization. Yet another tale of the strange and bizarre comes to us from Mark Vallianatos of LAplus (a “think tank focused on planning and housing”) writing at the LA Times. The bee in Mark’s bonnet has to do with the amount of property in the Los Angeles area which is zoned for single-family homes. (I know this is sounding as if it’s going to be as thrilling as watching paint dry, but hang in there. It gets better.) He’s arguing in favor of a new bill, SB 827, which would relax those zoning regulations and allow for duplexes, apartment complexes and all the rest to take over sections of the former single-family home neighborhoods.

So what’s the problem with all of these single-family homes? You don’t really need too many guesses to get this one, do you? They’re racist, of course!

These days, about half of the city is zoned for single-family exclusively. It is illegal to have anything except a detached house (and sometimes an accessory unit) on close to 500,000 properties in Los Angeles. Limiting what types of homes are allowed in this way has not only contributed to soaring housing costs, it has also created profound racial and class segregation.

Single-family zoning is a worm in L.A.’s apple, one of our original planning sins…

This type of race- and class-coded language has often been present when people want to restrict multifamily housing. It’s echoed in the fearful rhetoric about drugs, crime and transients we often hear as L.A. tries to fund and build more affordable housing and supportive housing for the homeless.

Apparently, the fact that fewer minorities in that area can afford to buy a single-family home and so they tend to live in apartments or other rental units makes the concept of the single-family home racist by definition. Now, I’ll grant you that the price of housing in LA (and most of California) is so far out of whack that it’s insane, but that’s not the fault of zoning. Much like New York City, you’ve simply packed so many people and such a vast concentration of wealth into a small area that the competition for desirable housing has reached Death Match 2018 levels. Apparently, your solution is to have the government ride in, wipe out the most desirable homes and build more towering boxes to be used as rentals.

My wife and I purchased our single-family home in a quiet suburb a couple of decades ago. It took a long time and a lot of work to get to the point where we could afford it but we love our neighborhood. Pretty much everyone knows each other, but we each have our own zone of privacy. People keep their yards neat, put out their trash on time, shovel their sidewalks in the winter and experiment with all sorts of creative gardening and decorating.

A mile or so down the hill there is an area zoned for apartments and smaller rental units. It’s usually a mess. The police are down there often, crime is more common and it’s simply not all that pleasant. I know there are plenty of fine people who live there and many of the younger ones have no choice owing to financial reasons. That’s how it is in high volume rental areas. People generally don’t care as much about the look and upkeep of their property because they don’t own it. It doesn’t mean anything to them and they know that someday they will be moving on and it will be somebody else’s problem.

Here’s a secret I’m willing to share with Mark Vallianatos. While it’s true that most of this entire region is majority white, the retired family across the street from me is black. Two doors down is a gay couple. The list goes on in a neighborhood which would probably shock you with its diversity. All wonderful people and fine neighbors.

Here’s another secret for you. Down the hill in that rental neighborhood, the majority of tenants (though certainly not all) are white. That fact somehow hasn’t inspired them to make sure their properties are in good order or that the criminal element (many of whom are also white) is sufficiently repressed. It’s not a race, gender or sexual orientation issue. It’s an issue of who was able to work toward home ownership and had the drive and desire to live in one of those evil, racist, single-family home neighborhoods.

If LA collectively decides to change their zoning laws to deal with their overpopulation, outrageous prices and lack of housing, that’s up to them. It’s a completely local matter. But you don’t need to preach to us that wanting to live in a quiet, nice neighborhood is a product of racism.